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Oct 3, 2008

The theory of set

In the first half of the 20s century, a great Georgian psychologist Dmitri Uznadze developed the theory of set. He and his followers measured how our actions are shaped not so much by stimuli as by readiness to act in a certain way. When we act, we unfold pre-written scripts. This is why different people can look at the same thing, and see completely different pictures. We all tend to screen information according to the pre-existing beliefs and attitudes, unconsciously. Sometimes these differences become so large that people do not understand how others see the world so differently, without lying, or being dumb.

I still remember the effect of the Simpson trials, where Black and White Americans realized they saw the same evidence in a strikingly different light, and came to the opposite conclusions. Political seasons usually lead to similar experiences. For example, how can the same woman, whose life is very much exposed to everyone, cause such a different reaction in different people? While conservatives tend to love Sarah Pailin, liberals are genuinely in disbelief that anyone can do that. These gaps in perceptions need to be explained, and when the gap is very large, only two explanations generally work: the other guys must be evil or stupid. So, liberals consider regular people who vote Republican stupid hicks, and the Republican leaders are just plain evil. Conservatives tend to do the same: the liberals are stupid, corrupt, or perverse, or all the above. Again, this is done not to just malign people; how else do you explain the differences in perception? The famous principle "agree to disagree" is a really difficult trick to pull off. It requires one to have no theory of other person's motives. Humans have a hard time being agnostic about each other's motives; it is almost unbearable for us to not know why people act the way they act. We need a theory of the other to stay sane; we are built to interpret other person's actions. This is actually, what most of our complex brains are designed for.

Now, because of these gaps, and theories that explain them, it is very difficult to talk to each other. For example, if I want to point out a character flaw in Pailin that has nothing to do with her political view, my Democrat friends will ignore it, because it does not matter. Republican friends will ignore it, because I just talk like any other liberal. (By the way, what concerns me about Sarah Pailin is that slight motion of her lower lip when she is angry, like that of a child determined not to cry. If you don't know what I mean, turn off the sound, and watch her speak – the convention and the debate. I think it is more important than her inexperience, or lack of knowledge, or her religious beliefs; she's got some major issues with self-esteem, and is driven to success to compensate for it, not to achieve something. She should never hold power over other people; it is just too dangerous for her and others.) See, there is no room for details like that in the regular political discourse, because of the gaps.

This is not a political blog, so I also want to connect to our much smaller and much better world. We all face that challenge from time to time. Sometimes other person's actions are just so difficult to explain, especially if you and that person are facing the same set of facts. But remember Uznadze: we carry sets – complex, holistic tendencies to see and act in certain ways. While we may be looking at the same thing, we might see very different things. Then we tend to attribute evil intentions or stupidity to other people who might possess neither. The solution is to suspend judgment, and try to understand and give credit to other people. Agree to disagree does not work; try to develop a habit of inventing multiple explanations of other people's actions. This skill is essential for what Maxine Greene calls the moral imagination.

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